Mexico’s Guerrero state Congress on Friday approved the impeachment of the mayor of Iguala, José Luis Abarca — accused of ties to organized crime and involvement in last month’s disappearance of 43 students — as protesters occupied five of the state’s town halls calling for justice.
“The evidence provided shows that the mayor, Jose Luis Abarca Velezquez … in charge of public safety and maintaining peace and order did not do so on Sept. 26 and 27 in Iguala,” Omar Jalil Flores, Guerrero’s ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) deputy told Mexican news website El Universal.
On Thursday, protesters in Guerrero state occupied five town halls and demanded the resignation of state governor Ángel Aguirre Rivero and the safe return of the missing students. The activists vowed to take all 81 municipal buildings unless the students were returned. Thousands have marched in mass protests in Mexico City in the weeks following their disappearance, calling for their safe homecoming.
Protesters — who have held the municipal headquarters of Chilpancingo, Guerrero’s capital since Wednesday — also took control of several toll booths in Guerrero for hours on Thursday, asking for donations for their movement and informing the public of their aims.
Demonstrators and family members of the missing students said they were taken alive, and they want them returned alive. Guerrero’s CETEG teachers union and student activists said they plan to march to the resort city of Acapulco on Friday as part of the protest.
Students from Guerrero’s Ayotzinapa teachers school were protesting government reforms on Set. 26 when police opened fire on buses the students had hijacked, killing three students and three bystanders.
Amid the violence, 43 students disappeared. Days later, dozens of local police officers were arrested after confessing they had abducted the students and handed them over to Guerreros Unidos, a local criminal organization. One gang member later said that police had ordered him to kill 17 of the students.
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto said on Thursday that he had ordered the attorney general’s office, the Ministry of the Interior, National Defense and Navy to “accelerate” their work finding the students.
Peña Nieto has deployed 1,200 federal police, including horse-mounted officers to comb the state’s rough terrain, divers to search underwater and aircraft, according to media reports. The government is offering $750,000 for information leading to the whereabouts of the students.
But Peña Nieto and PRI critics said the party, which previously ruled Mexico from 1929-1999, has a long history of involvement with extrajudicial killings — pointing specifically to the Oct. 2, 1968, Tlatelolco massacre in which up to 300 students and other civilians were killed by government security forces during a protest in Mexico City.
Meanwhile, the Union of Organized People of the State of Guerrero (UPOEG) said they had located seven additional mass graves near Iguala. This week, officials said initial DNA testing of the first grave found with 28 charred bodies did not match that of the families of the missing students.
“They found seven mass graves, in four of them bones were excavated and signs of cutting were found on the ribs,” said Cristoforo Garcia, a UPOEG leader.
He added that children’s clothes, shoes, and other personal objects were found. Officials have found at least 19 mass graves in the search for the students, according to Mexican media reports. It is unknown if any of them contain remains belonging to the Ayotzinapa students.
More than 20,000 people have gone missing in Mexico in the past eight years, according to rights groups and government figures. Rights groups say there may be untold numbers of mass graves dotting the country.
Residents of Iguala said for years they have seen unidentified vehicles in the hills above the city where the graves were found, and described the entire areas as a cemetery.
“Sometimes we heard gunshots, but other times we didn’t hear anything because we had music playing or the dogs were barking or we slept through the noise,” one woman told the Milenio newspaper.
Decades of Mexico’s so-called Dirty War, and the heavily militarized "war on drugs" that followed, led to the disappearance or deaths of thousands who opposed government policies. In Guerrero, one of Mexico’s poorest states, citizen self-defense groups have risen in reaction to drug-related violence.
The students at Guerrero’s Ayotzinapa teachers school, are known to be active in politics and social justice issues.
“The normal [teachers] schools have historically suffered from a number of blows … the government does not want people to think or go against its interests,” said Silvia Caballeros, a 21-year-old student of international relations at the National Polytechnic Institute (UNAM), which earlier this week called a 48-hour strike with several other Mexico City universities.
“The disappearance of the [students] and the government reforms are all aimed so that the people don’t think, don’t criticize, don’t raise their voice,” Caballeros told Al Jazeera. “And the government can do whatever they want based on their own interests and not the interests of the community.”
With wire services and additional reporting by Debora Poo Soto.